The Richmond Circuit Court marked a significant post-COVID milestone on Jan. 7.
For the first time since the Supreme Court of Virginia declared a “judicial emergency” in March 2020, the Richmond Circuit Court held a civil jury trial. The judicial emergency initially halted jury trials across Virginia.
“It felt good to be back in the courtroom,” said Kelly Martin, the plaintiff’s attorney in Roane v. Brooks, a car-wreck personal injury case.
While the judicial emergency has been extended 16 times and remains in effect, the Supreme Court has allowed jury trials to resume pending approval of plans submitted by each locale’s circuit court. Ninety-nine circuit courts across the state have had their plans to restart jury trials approved by panels of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Circuit courts in central Virginia have had to account for COVID-19 protocols, and thus far have met minimal challenges in adapting to this new normal.
Richmond’s plan to resume jury trials was approved by the Supreme Court on Sept. 25, with the first jury trial in the city beginning on Oct. 13. Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said that the jury trials are going “relatively well” so far.
“The first couple were a little difficult just because everyone was adjusting to the reconfiguration of the actual courtrooms,” McEachin said. Physical changes in the courtroom include Plexiglas in front of the court reporter, the judge’s clerk and the witness box. The jurors are seated in the viewing gallery, putting attorneys in an awkward position.
“The court allowed us to move our chairs to the other side of the table, but then our backs were to the judge, so that was odd,” Martin said. “I would’ve rather done that than had my back to the jury.”
Attorneys also have had to adjust how they display evidence. Rather than have the jury pass around exhibits, Martin had a binder prepared for each juror.
“Attorneys are constantly moving around because there is not just one jury area, it is three-quarters of the courtroom,” McEachin said. When deliberating, the jurors are moved to “as large of a courtroom as possible” to ensure social distancing and masks are required for all parties for the duration of the trial.
Another issue complicating the transition is the use of video arraignments. Richmond used video arraignments before the pandemic, but because of transfer issues defendants that are being held must appear by video. McEachin said some attorneys have argued for continuances because of issues related to this, and that it is up to the individual judge to make a decision to grant or deny the continuance.
Richmond has not seen an issue keeping juries full despite the pandemic, a fact that McEachin credits to the citizens of Richmond.
“It is true that the legal system only works if all members are willing to take part in it, and I think that it is commendable that the citizens of Richmond are willing to come and serve on a jury,” McEachin said.
Henrico County was the first locality to hold a jury trial after the pandemic began, with a criminal jury trial held Sept. 15. Henrico County’s plan to resume jury trials was approved on Aug. 13. Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor said her jurisdiction is doing an “exceptional job” at safely returning to jury trials.
“I think we’re doing a pretty good job respecting the speedy trial and respecting the constitutional protection of all parties,” Taylor said. Taylor noted that Henrico courts have not had to shut down since jury trials began, and have avoided the “domino effect” of a docket full of continued cases.
Henrico County has two courtrooms able to hear jury trials with the new COVID adjustments, with a third expected to be ready in the near future. Everyone in the courtroom must wear masks, attorneys must speak at a specific podium and jurors are separated by Plexiglas. In addition, the courtroom is cleaned and sanitized every one to two hours when court is in session.
Taylor considers Henrico County “fortunate” because the county already had allocated money to upgrade the technology in courtrooms prior to the pandemic. Attorneys are encouraged to use technology like PowerPoint to avoid moving around the courtroom and distributing hard copies.
“We happened to be in this place, a couple of steps ahead, that we were already upgrading these courtrooms with technology. We were very fortunate,” Taylor said.
Taylor calls Henrico County’s plan a “relative success” all things considered. The county has had no issues filling juries and has COVID policies that have worked “very well.”
“We are making sure that the cases that need to be tried are being tried, so I give a big shout-out to my partners over here,” Taylor said.
Chesterfield County’s plan to resume jury trials was approved on Sept. 30. Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport said in an email that six criminal jury trials have been tried since then.
Because the county is only able to hear cases in one courtroom, Davenport said cases have been moving slower with COVID precautions in place. Despite this, Davenport reiterated that the system has been working “smoothly” since being implemented.
“The feedback from the judges, the attorneys and the court staff involved in the trials has been nothing but positive,” Davenport wrote. Davenport said that the court has not had to halt jury trials since their plan was approved, and she does not anticipate having to do so in the future.
Davenport said that she was unaware if the county had begun trying civil jury cases yet. Under Chesterfield County’s plan, criminal cases take priority in case scheduling.
Among the new COVID protocols are daily health self-assessment checklists for employees. Jurors are seated “one-to-two per row” in the viewing gallery, with observers viewing trials via closed-circuit feed at the county’s historic 1917 Courthouse. The plan emphasizes using technology like document cameras rather than physical exhibits to show evidence. The court breaks every 90 minutes to two hours to allow for high-touch surfaces to be cleaned.
Navigating the new normal
With no firm end of the pandemic in sight, none of the commonwealth’s attorneys indicated when COVID protocols may be relaxed. While Martin said the court did a “good job” keeping attorneys informed on the changes, he did note that COVID has affected his practice.
“I found that I’ve been arbitrating more cases because trials, at least up until this year, have been continued,” Martin said.
With civil jury trials returning to central Virginia, the hope is that cases will move faster with protocols becoming more widespread. McEachin noted that people will become more comfortable with the protocols as more cases are heard.
“For the first couple of juries, everyone was trying to figure out the reconfiguration,” McEachin said. “At this point, everyone has gotten used to the new normal to conducting jury trials.”